The Cold War that Wasn't: Norway Annexes Greenland

In 1931, Norway annexed part of Greenland. It could have been the start of a very Cold War indeed. 

The Cold War that Wasn't: Norway Annexes Greenland

On 27 June 1931, five fishermen sent a historic telegram from Greenland to Oslo: “The Norwegian flag has been hoisted at Myggbukta […] We've called this Erik the Red's Land.” Two weeks later, Norway officially proclaimed the annexation of Eastern Greenland. It could have been the start of a very Cold War indeed. 

Had the Norwegian gambit succeeded, our world maps today would trace a border across Greenland's pristinely white interior, separating the Norwegian territory of Eirik Raudes Land in the east from the Danish bulk of the island. Considering the hostile nature of Norway's takeover, that border would perhaps be traced with barbed wire on the ground and marked by watchtowers — a frozen conflict not unlike the one manacling Pakistani and Indian troops to the deadly Siachen Glacier in northern Kashmir (see also #629).

But there is no Norwegian colony on Greenland, and no map of Erik the Red's Land — at least not a current one. Denmark and Norway brought their dispute before the International Court of Justice, which in 1933 ruled in favor of Copenhagen. Oslo meekly abided by the decision. This map dates to the brief interlude when Norway sought to bolster its claim to the Eastern Greenland by the two time-honored means at its disposal: occupation and cartography.

After the German occupation of Norway in 1940, the collaborating regime briefly re-occupied Erik the Red's Land, threatening to bring the World War to Greenland's inhospitable shores. But the shared suffering under the German occupation brought Danes and Norwegians together again. Past differences over Greenland were forgotten, as was the danger — very real at one time — that they would have gone to war over Greenland in the 1930s.

The Falklands War of 1982 between Argentina and the UK has been described as “two bald men fighting over a comb.” The colorful expression negates the fact that apart from national pride, rich fishing grounds were at stake, as was the possibility that the economic zone surrounding the islands was rich in hydrocarbon reserves.

Similarly, Norway had sound economic reasons to stake a claim on Greenland, or at least part of it. These were backed up by centuries of history — and a sense of frustration that the Danes had "stolen" Greenland from them.

Around the year 1000, Greenland was settled by Erik the Red and other Norse colonists from Iceland, who had themselves arrived from Scandinavia a few centuries earlier. These Greenlandic and Icelandic colonies formed a cultural and political continuum with the mainland, but those ties preceded the modern nation states that would later lay claim to them.

In the 1260s, the Norse Greenlanders recognized the overlordship of the Norwegian king. But by 1500, the Norse colonies had died out, and Norway had entered into a political union with Denmark, which would last until the early 19th century. This joint kingdom was dominated by Denmark, which took the lead when contact with Greenland was re-established in 1721, beginning with the missionary work of Hans Egede, the "Apostle of Greenland."

The Treaty of Kiel, which in 1814 transferred Norway from Danish to Swedish rule, maintained the former Norwegian colonies of Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Island for Denmark. Norway, which would have to wait until 1905 before it gained full independence from Sweden, never recognized that treaty.

But things only came to a head in 1921, when the Danish parliament officially declared Greenland to be an integral part of Denmark. Henceforth, non-Danes had to ask for permission to go ashore on Greenland. Norwegian fishermen had a long tradition of whaling and sealing in the region, but the Danes did not consider that sufficient motivation to grant them access. Naturally, the Norwegians considered Denmark's declaration of sovereignty a provocation, an attack on their economic interests in Eastern Greenland.

Hence the flag-raising incident at Myggbukta (in Danish: Myggebugten, in English: Mosquito Bay), where the telegram was sent from a pre-existing Norwegian radio station. The nationalist government in Oslo was sympathetic to the self-styled declaration of dependence by Hallvard Devold and his four fisherman friends, but dithered for two weeks before backing it up with a Royal Proclamation. On 10 July 1931, it informed the world that Norway was taking possession of the area in Eastern Greenland between Carlsberg Fjord in the south and Bessel Fjord in the north, extending from latitudes north 71”30' to 75”40'.

The sense in Oslo's government circles was that Norway was justified to force Denmark to share Greenland's resources, especially by occupying parts of the island where the Danish, concentrated in the south and west of Greenland, were all but absent. But the fear was that this could lead to a war with Denmark, which Norway — smaller, weaker, poorer — would very probably lose. This did not deter Norway's defense minister at the time from threatening to deploy the navy.

Meanwhile, Norway hastened to shore up its claim. The writer Idar Hangard wrote a pamphlet titled "Denmark's False and Norway's True Claim to Greenland," attacking the unfair Treaty of Kiel. Norwegians built 76 houses in East Greenland, vastly outnumbering the two Danish huts in the area. Skirmishes between Danes and Norwegians became a frequent occurrence.

All of which sounds an awful lot like the right ingredients for a cold war that could have turned hot at any moment. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, by bringing the conflict to the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

A procession of experts testified to who held a better claim to sovereignty over Greenland. They included famous Danish-Inuit explorer Knud Rasmussen, who had mapped parts of Eastern Greenland during his sixth and seventh Thule Expeditions from 1931 to 1933.

On 5 April 1933, the ICJ backed up Denmark's claims to Greenland by 12 votes to two, validating the Treaty of Kiel and declaring Norway's occupation in the east illegal. To this day, the ICJ verdict on Eastern Greenland remains the only time a territorial dispute in the Arctic was settled by international arbitration. Contemporary sources attribute the outcome at least partly to the interventions of the charismatic Rasmussen, who died shortly after the verdict.

Norway's defeat also at least partly results from the indecision and division within Norway's political elite. Just one illustration: When Norway's Prime Minister Peder Kolstad died on 2 March 1932, he was succeeded by Jens Hundseid. However, Justice minister Asbjørn Lindboe missed the deceased PM's guidance so much that he consulted a medium to obtain his advice.

In 1940, the defense minister who had threatened to use the Norwegian navy became the head of Norway's collaborating regime. Vidkun Quisling — whose surname became synonymous with "traitor" — revived the rejected claim, extending it to the entire island. But the Nazis vetoed his plans for a military reconquista of Greenland.

Ironically, it wasn't Norway, but Nazi Germany itself that established a presence in Eastern Greenland. From August 1942, the Germans installed a total of four manned weather stations in the area, on Sabine Island and Shannon Island among other locations. Skirmishes cost the lives of one Danish and one German soldier — the only combat fatalities of World War II on Greenland. The last German weather station, Edelweiss II, was seized by the Americans on 4 October 1944, its 19 German personnel captured without casualties.  


Contemporary map of Eirik Raudes Land found here. Map showing location of Eirik Raudes Land on Greenland here from Wikimedia Commons. Both in the public domain. Full text of the ICJ verdict here. The Nazis also established a presence on the South Pole. See #88 for more on the 'colony' of Neuschwabenland.

Strange Maps #704

Got a strange map? Let me know at

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
  • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
  • While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
Keep reading Show less

7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

Nero's Torches. A group of early Christian martyrs about to be burned alive during the reign of emperor Nero in 64 AD.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

  • As the material that makes all living things what/who we are, DNA is the key to understanding and changing the world. British geneticist Bryan Sykes and Francis Collins (director of the Human Genome Project) explain how, through gene editing, scientists can better treat illnesses, eradicate diseases, and revolutionize personalized medicine.
  • But existing and developing gene editing technologies are not without controversies. A major point of debate deals with the idea that gene editing is overstepping natural and ethical boundaries. Just because they can, does that mean that scientists should be edit DNA?
  • Harvard professor Glenn Cohen introduces another subcategory of gene experiments: mixing human and animal DNA. "The question is which are okay, which are not okay, why can we generate some principles," Cohen says of human-animal chimeras and arguments concerning improving human life versus morality.

Surprising Science

Physicists push limits of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

New studies stretch the boundaries of physics, achieving quantum entanglement in larger systems.